Secretary of State James A. Baker III’s request for new non-military aid for Nicaragua’s Contras ran into opposition Wednesday from House Democrats, who said they need more time to study his proposals for U.S. diplomacy in Central America.
The Democrats’ misgivings appear likely to force President Bush to postpone a public announcement of his new Central America policy, which officials said they had hoped would take place as early as today.
The proposed policy would combine U.S. diplomatic support for a Central American peace plan with increased pressure on Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to enact democratic reforms--plus an estimated $50 million to keep the Contras alive until Nicaragua conducts elections next February.
Baker, seeking bipartisan support for his plan, won general backing from the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate last week. But liberal Democrats in the House marshaled opposition to the plan this week, prompting House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) to tell Baker on Wednesday that they want more time to consider the plan.
“We are continuing to discuss the matter,” Mitchell said through a spokesman. “Progress is being made.”
A senior Administration official expressed frustration with the Democrats’ stand. “They never get together up there on anything having to do with Central America,” he complained.
He said that the Administration wants to launch the policy with clear bipartisan support. “Our view is that we’ve given them . . . an offer they can’t refuse,” he said. “But maybe they’ll refuse it anyway, in which event we probably have to go forward.”
At a closed-door meeting Tuesday, a majority of House Democrats decided that they are unhappy with Baker’s request for renewed non-military aid to the Contras until the Nicaraguan elections.
“If it’s aid intended to resettle the Contras, we have always envisaged that,” said California Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “If it’s some kind of incentive to keep the Contras going, that’s a completely different issue. . . . I don’t think we should support it until we see some more specifics.”
An Administration official said that Baker still hopes some kind of compromise can be worked out this week. “There are still a few issues to resolve, but consultations are ongoing,” the official said.
An aide to one House Democratic leader said that the issues include assurances that the money will not be used to put the Contras in an improved position to resume military operations if the peace plan falters. Baker already has said publicly that the Administration will warn the Contras to halt military operations against Nicaragua from their camps in neighboring Honduras.
“We’re taking the military equation . . . out of it,” a senior Administration official said. “We are talking about keeping the resistance there as an incentive to encourage the Sandinistas to do what they promised they were going to do” in internal reforms.
He indicated that the Administration wants to postpone any moves to disband the Contras until after the Nicaraguan election next February. Officials in Honduras, where the rebels are based, have said that they want the Contras resettled by the end of this year.
The Central American peace plan, adopted by five of the area’s nations last month, calls for a formula to demobilize and resettle the Contras by May 15, but sets no deadline for the resettlement process itself.
“If there’s a free and fair election in February, we’d have to look at measures for repatriation,” the senior Administration official said.
Asked how likely prospects are for a fair election, he indicated that he is skeptical. “They haven’t performed yet, have they?” he said of the Sandinista government.
“The Contras are an incentive,” he said. “Not as big an incentive as if they were sitting there with a lot of weapons . . . but it is an incentive. And we have not had performance by the Sandinistas; there’s been anything but performance. So whatever incentives we have, we should maintain.”
He said that the greatest need is for a coherent U.S. policy with broad support.
“What you have now is . . . a chaotic situation,” he said. “You have Central American government (officials) coming to town and meeting with (congressional) staffers and not meeting with the executive branch and cutting deals with the Hill. You can’t run a foreign policy like that.”